Deadly California wildfire grows as city of Paradise smoulders

Ken's Automotive Service repair shop lies in ruins after wildfires devastated the area in Paradise, California.
Ken's Automotive Service repair shop lies in ruins after wildfires devastated the area in Paradise, California.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARADISE, California (REUTERS, AFP) - Convoys of fire engines rumbled through the smoldering northern California town of Paradise on Tuesday (Nov 13) on their way to combat still-active sections of the state's deadliest and most destructive wildfire in history, which grew by 3,000 hectares.

Teams of workers wielding chainsaws cleared downed power lines and other obstacles from the streets, while forensics teams mobilised to resume their search for human remains in the charred wreckage of the Butte County town of 27,000, which was almost completely consumed by fire last Thursday, just hours after the blaze erupted.

The "Camp Fire" continued to rage in Butte County, about 280km north of San Francisco, and expanded to 50,500 hectares, more than four times the area of the city, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.

The death toll stood at 50 people, the most on record from a California wildfire. More than 7,600 homes and other structures burned down, also an all-time high.

With hundreds of people unaccounted for, the toll is likely to rise. Officials asked relatives and friends to keep checking with evacuation shelters and call centers in the hope many of them could be located.

On a residential street in Paradise lined with burned down houses, a team of 10 rescue and forensic workers wearing white suits and helmets used a dog to search for victims.

"Look for skulls, the big bones," one forensics worker said to others as they used metal poles and their hands to sift through the remains of a house.

Another found a firearm and marked it for later removal.

Across the street, two rescue workers in red led a dog around a burnt-out car and through the foundation of a house.

 

The fire was 30 per cent contained, suggesting a "big chunk"was under control, but full containment was not expected until the end of November and the progress would depend largely on the wind and the weather, Cal Fire spokeswoman Erica Bain said.

"Thirty per cent is kind of where we're getting close to rounding the corner. When we're in the 30s and 40s, they're getting a good handle on it. By the end of this week I'd like to see that number up to 40, maybe 45," Bain said.

One hundred fifty search-and-recovery personnel were due to arrive in the area on Tuesday, bolstering 13 coroner-led recovery teams in the fire zone, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.

The sheriff has requested three portable morgue teams from the U.S. military, a "disaster mortuary" crew, cadaver dog units to locate human remains and three groups of forensic anthropologists.

Some 52,000 people remained under evacuation orders and 8,700 firefighters from 17 states have been battling the wildfires.

In Southern California, two people died in the separate "Woolsey Fire," which has destroyed 435 structures and displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills near Southern California's Malibu coast, west of Los Angeles.

The Woolsey Fire was 35 per cent contained, up from 30 per cent a day earlier, Cal Fire said, as authorities reopened a number of communities that had been under evacuation orders.

Authorities were probing the cause of the fires. A spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission said on Tuesday the regulator has launched investigations that may include an inspection of the fire sites once Cal Fire allows access.

PG&E Corp, which operates in northern California, and Edison International, the owner of Southern California Edison Co, have reported to regulators that they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas where fires were reported around the time they started.

President Donald Trump on Monday night declared a major disaster exists from the fires, making federal funds available to people and local government agencies in Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The pledge came two days after Trump blamed the brush fires on forest mismanagement, tweeting "Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!" He struck a more sympathetic tone while speaking from the White House on Tuesday.

"We mourn the lives of those lost and we pray for the victims," Trump said while thanking first responders. "We will do everything in our power to support and protect our fellow citizens in harm's way."